What Universal Kindergarten Tells Us About Universal Preschool

Elizabeth Cascio’s excellent new study “What Happened When Kindergarten Went Universal?” finds few positive outcomes from universal kindergarten.

Via the study published at Education Next in a nutshell:

State funding of universal kindergarten had no discernible impact on many of the long-term outcomes desired by policymakers, including grade retention, public assistance receipt, employment, and earnings. White children were 2.5 percent less likely to be high school dropouts and 22 percent less likely to be incarcerated or otherwise institutionalized as adults following state funding initiatives, but no other effects could be discerned. Also, I find no positive effects for African Americans, despite comparable increases in their enrollment in public kindergartens after implementation of the initiatives. These findings suggest that even large investments in universal early-childhood education programs do not necessarily yield clear benefits, especially for more disadvantaged students.

As the Fordham Foundation’s Checker Finn writes in his analyses of the study:

While universalizing kindergarten may have seemed like a good idea at the time, it turned out to do more good for white kids (but only a little good even for them) than for black kids (for whom it seems to have had no educational benefit at all). If the policy goal were to equalize educational opportunity and/or to narrow achievement gaps, in retrospect America would have been better served by intensive kindergarten targeted on particularly needy kids. And we probably could have managed that on the same budget.

In light of this lesson from universal kindergarten and other evidence that casts doubt on universal preschool as a silver bullet, the Obama Administration’s $9.3 billion plan for Early Learning Challenge Grants to encourage states to invest in state-run universal preschool is an ongoing testament to the triumph of hope over experience.

Lisa Snell is the director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.

Snell has frequently testified before the California State Legislature and numerous other state legislatures and government agencies. She has authored policy studies on school finance and weighted student funding, universal preschool, school violence, charter schools, and child advocacy centers.

Snell is a frequent contributor to Reason magazine, School Reform News and Privatization Watch. Her writing has also appeared in Education Week, Edutopia, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, San Francisco Chronicle, Orange County Register, Los Angeles Times, and numerous other publications.

Ms. Snell is also an advisory board member to the National Quality Improvement Center for the Children's Bureau; is on the charter school accreditation team for the American Academy for Liberal Education; and serves as a board member for the California Virtual Academy.

Before joining Reason Foundation, Snell taught public speaking and argumentation courses at California State University, Fullerton. She earned a Master of Arts in communication from California State University, Fullerton.